Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of young American adolescents are not sexually active, researchers from the Guttmacher Institute reported in the journal Pediatrics.

The authors explained that things change when adolescents reach the ages of 16 to 18.

Lawrence B Finer and Jesse M Philbin gathered and examined newly available public data on sexual initiation, contraceptive use and pregnancy among American adolescents from the 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth, issued by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. The data involved children and teenagers aged from 10 to 19 years.

They found that very few boys and girls had sex before the age of 13 years. According to their study, the following shows the percentages of young adolescents who had had sex:

  • 0.6% of 10-year olds
  • 1.1% of 11-year olds
  • 2.4% of 12-year olds

They added that the percentage of girls aged up to 12 years who became pregnant was “miniscule”.

By the time children reached the second half of their teenage years, things started changing rapidly.

  • 33% of 16-year-olds were sexually active
  • 48% had become sexually active by the age of 17
  • 61% at 18 years
  • 71% at 19 years

These percentages and ages – when things change – have prevailed for several decades, the researchers found. Low sexual activity during the early years of adolescence has been the norm for a long time, while losing their virginity has been, and remains, a normal part of a teenager’s development process.

However, the authors observed that more recently, teenagers appear to be waiting longer to become sexually active. The likelihood of being sexually active at any teenage year is currently the lowest it has been for the last twenty-five years.

Lead author, Finer, said:

“Policymakers and the media often sensationalize teen sexual behavior, suggesting that adolescents as young as 10 or 11 are increasingly sexually active. But the data just don’t support that concern.

Rather, we are seeing teens waiting longer to have sex, using contraceptives more frequently when they start having sex, and being less likely to become pregnant than their peers of past decades.”

The majority of teenagers used some kind of contraceptive once they started having sex. They said their main reason was to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The researchers found that 15-year-old girls were as careful about using contraceptives as their older counterparts.

  • Over 80% of 16-year-olds used a contraceptive method during their first sexual experience
  • By 12 months following their first sex, 95% of teenagers had used contraceptives
  • Adolescents who became sexually active at 14 years or younger were less likely to use contraceptives initially. They also took longer to start using a contraceptive method.

Children who became sexually active at a much younger age were more often than not coerced into sex, the authors discovered.

  • 62% of girls who had sex by the time they were 10 reported that their first sex was coerced
  • 50% of girls who had sex by 11 said they were coerced the first time

Coerced sex is an area that “warrants attention in and of itself”, the authors argued.

Adolescent health professionals, including pediatricians, are ideally placed to teach adolescents about contraception before they start becoming sexually active.

Contraceptive methods should be made available to patients before their first sexual encounter. This would help improve teen health outcomes. Health professionals are also in an ideal position to screen for unwanted sexual activity among patients of all age groups.

In an abstract in the journal, the investigators wrote:

“Sexual activity and pregnancy are rare among the youngest adolescents, whose behavior represents a different public health concern than the broader issue of pregnancies to older teens. Health professionals can improve outcomes for teenagers by recognizing the higher likelihood of nonconsensual sex among younger teens and by teaching and making contraceptive methods available to teen patients before they become sexually active.”

In 2007, researchers from the Division of Reproductive Health at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health that the sexual behavior of teenagers is linked to whether they have had formal sex education at school.

In 2009, “Advocates for Youth” published some startling figures comparing adolescent sexual and reproductive health in the USA, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

The report found that:

  • The teenage birth rate is nine times higher in the USA than in the Netherlands, and four times higher than in France and Germany
  • The American teen abortion rate is twice that of the Netherlands and Germany
  • The teenage gonorrhea rate is 28 times higher in the USA than in the Netherlands
  • If the American teen birth rate were the same as that of the Netherlands, there would be 617,000 fewer teenage pregnancies in America each year

One of the main reasons America lags behind other developed nations regarding teenage sexual and reproductive health is its failure to invest in comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education.

Written by Christian Nordqvist